Where there's a wheel, there's a way

An elite wheelchair race will feature at the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon for the first time this year, with wheelchair athletes taking their place alongside their able-bodied counterparts at the pre-race press conference yesterday. Among th
An elite wheelchair race will feature at the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon for the first time this year, with wheelchair athletes taking their place alongside their able-bodied counterparts at the pre-race press conference yesterday. Among the 11 wheelchair athletes taking part are (from left): Madison de Rozario, Joshua George, Eliza Ault-Connell and Zou Lihong. Standing behind them are (from left): Jean Ng, Singapore Tourism Board director of sports; Lim Teck Yin, Sport Singapore CEO; Soh Rui Yong; Paul Lonyangata; and Geoff Meyer, Ironman Asia managing director.ST PHOTO: JEREMY KWAN

One spring day in 1988, life changed forever for Joshua George. Just four then, he fell from a 12-storey window at his parents' apartment near Washington DC.

He landed almost straight on his feet, dislocating his hips, breaking his legs and several ribs, puncturing his lungs, and suffering severe damage to his spine which led to paralysis of his lower body.

That he even survived the accident is incredible.

That he is today a Paralympic champion and multiple wheelchair World Marathon Major winner, is inspiring.

Tomorrow, the 34-year-old will be among 11 athletes - six men and five women - taking part in the first elite wheelchair race at the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM).

At the pre-race press conference at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre yesterday, George insisted he is not a "unique case" and that his achievements were simply a testament to "human resilience".

"There's nothing about me that's special," said the 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2014 Chicago Marathon and 2015 London Marathon winner.

"Humans are able to adapt to any situation. I was fortunate I had a great family around me, I was raised in a great environment after my accident, and I adapted.

"Now it's in the past. It's a story that's fun to tell but that's all it has become."

George, who won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics in the men's 100m T53, added he was thrilled to make history as one of the first wheelchair athletes to race a marathon in Singapore.

"I've been marathoning since 2002, and to see the change in wheelchair marathoning across the planet is amazing," he said.

"We went from a point where we were fighting just to be included as part of the races, then included but sort of as a sideshow and not part of the main event, to now, where we're in the press conferences and we're a major part of all the races.

"We're being accepted as elite athletes, and as an entertaining aspect of the race that spectators want to come out and watch, and that the media want to come out and cover.

"Wheelchair racing is an incredible sport, and to see the world open their arms and their hearts to invite us in, means so much to me."

Like George, Australian Eliza Ault-Connell has a similarly harrowing tale - hers is of contracting meningococcal disease a week after turning 16, falling into a two-week coma, and waking up without her legs.

Like George, the 37-year-old, who had excelled in netball and basketball before her illness, also managed to transition into a successful para athlete.

She has won medals at the Commonwealth Games and World Championships, and finished second at the 2004 Olympics, where wheelchair racing was a demonstration sport.

She stopped competing in 2006 to start a family but returned two years ago. And at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April, she won a silver in the wheelchair marathon.

"I spent 10 years out of the sport, had three children, but came back to show them that you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it," explained Ault-Connell, as her two daughters and son crowded around her, listening intently as she fielded questions from reporters.

China's Zou Lihong, who won the 2016 Rio Paralympics gold in a dramatic photo finish, is also honoured to be a part of the SCSM's first elite wheelchair race.

The 34-year-old, who contracted polio as a child, said: "Having this wheelchair marathon category... (is a) platform that will allow more people with disabilities to actively integrate, participate and show how we can overcome difficulties, fight with courage and how we can be self-reliant and independent."

Geoff Meyer, managing director of SCSM organiser Ironman Asia, hailed the racers, saying: "We went out and asked the best of the best (to come). These are Paralympic champions, world champions, New York champions, London champions, they are fantastic."

Sazali Abdul Aziz

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2018, with the headline 'Where there's a wheel, there's a way'. Print Edition | Subscribe